Initially released in 1979 to a mixed critical reception, Alien has gone on to be considered one of the greatest films of all time. An atmospheric horror set in a believable sci-fi world, it was the perfect blend of genres. Although sometimes overshadowed by its action-heavy sequel Aliens, the original will always be the gold standard to which all other works of sci-fi horror are measured.
What Alien Means to Us
Alien (along with Blade Runner) is so good, it has given Ridley Scott a pass for life. There may not be a more hit-or-miss director working today and yet, after enduring so many disappoints and actual trash, I’m still willing to give every new movie of his the benefit of the doubt based solely on the strength of Alien. Because maybe, just maybe, he can make another thing this great again. If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you’re well aware of my penchant for hyperbole. I’ve declared many a film to be great or even “the best of all time” but Alien is one of those films that earns that level of praise. Every single element of this movie works. The cast, filled with relative newcomers, is perfect. Each character is well written and feels real. This isn’t the typical space crew you’d find in any other movie. They’re not scientists or explorers. They’re roughnecks who were hired to do a job. Most of them don’t even want to explore LV-426; they just want to go home. So when the shit does hit the fan and there’s now a Xenomorph to deal with, they don’t know what to do. They’re not military and they don’t have experience in this. Compare that to Planet of the Vampires, Forbidden Planet, or hell, Prometheus, where the crew dies because someone did the dumbest thing possible. The plots only happen because of a contrivance. The characters in this fuck up but they don’t do anything outright dumb. The plot isn’t dependent on them doing the wrong thing because the script is well written. The writers even went the extra mile and explained why they can’t just shoot the damn thing because of its acid blood. It just works. And how fucking great is the design of the Xenomorph. It’s probably the greatest monster design ever. It’s not my favorite horror movie or my favorite sci-fi film but I’m hard-pressed to name a film I think has combined those two genres better.
My first experience with Alien wasn’t the movie, rather it was the novelization by Alan Dean Foster. I read it half a dozen times at Boy Scout camp. At night. In the dark. Just a fading flashlight and my imagination. That mental image of seven people trapped in a haunted house of a spaceship – where the outside would kill you just as dead as what was hunting you inside – stuck with me long after the memory of how to fletch an arrow had faded. When I finally did see the movie years later it was very different than what was in my head, and somehow felt exactly the same. The same horror, the feeling of being trapped, the claustrophobia and paranoia. It was perfect. It remains one of my favorite films, horror or otherwise, and I still think of that opening paragraph from the novel from time to time. “Seven dreamers. In search of a nightmare.”
–Bob Cram Jr.
I’ve said this before, maybe here, maybe another site, but I actually saw Aliens as a kid first. I stayed over a buddy’s house one night and we watched it on HBO. It was awesome. I went home the next morning and told my dad ALL about it. His only response was, “Have you seen the original?” and me, I’m all like … “Whaaaaat??!?!?! There’s an original?” So he immediately went down the block to the video store (damn I miss them) and rented it for me. And to be honest the film bored me to tears. Where was all the action? Where was Bill Paxton’s humor? I was bummed he made me watch it. But hey, I was like 11 or 12, what the hell did I know? Obviously, I watched it again over the years and I grew to appreciate it. The movie is an outstanding horror film set in space. One of the all time best if you ask me. It’s probably (definitely) in my top 10 of all time. The creature designs are outstanding, the characters are well portrayed and the tension is built throughout the film in such a way it freaks you out until the very end. Thanks dad.
When Alien arrived in theatres in 1979, it introduced us to a horror icon: the Xenomorph. Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon met visionary Swiss artist H. R. Giger while the two had been involved with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune movie. He recommended that the artist be brought on to Alien to help inspire the look of the film’s antagonist. Ridley Scott was a fan of Giger’s work after reading his 1977 book, Necronomicon and because of all this, Giger was hired to produce artwork and conceptual designs for the film. Two lithographs from the Necronomicon books were the basis for the iconic Xenomorph. One of the concept designs had the creature as a crab-like, four-legged Cthulhu monster with eyes and hook-like claws. Giger decided to remove the eyes in order to make the monster come across as more dangerous. Something that runs on pure primal instinct and hunger. Giger also wanted it to be beautiful and graceful, rather than something that was simply repulsive. He stated:
A monster isn’t just something disgusting; it can have a kind of beauty.
The finished product was unlike anything moviegoers had ever seen. The Xenomorph was absolutely terrifying. The way it stalked its victims. The slime drenching the floor as it stands by waiting for another victim. The appearance of the secret second head within the darkness of the creature’s mouth, just waiting to punch a hole in someone’s skull. Absolute nightmare fuel.
With only seven human characters in the story, Ridley Scott was keen to use strong actors, enabling him to pour all of his attention into the film’s visual style. He was also keen to have the crew of the Nostromo resembling realistic astronauts that felt more like everyday working Joes. He wasn’t looking for a glamorous portrayal of space adventure.
Adding to the rawness, a significant number of the cast were inexperienced, including lead actor Sigourney Weaver. Scott wrote several pages of backstory for each of the characters explaining their histories to help them prepare for the roles. He filmed many of their rehearsals to try and capture some spontaneity and improvisation and he was also keen to capture some of the tensions between the cast members, particularly towards the less-experienced Weaver. This then translated convincingly to film as tension between the on-screen characters.
Adding to this feeling of tension were a number of issues on set. The main one being that the spacesuits the actors had to use were thick, bulky, and lined with nylon, with no cooling systems or venting. Combined with a heatwave, these conditions nearly caused some of the actors to pass out, with nurses being kept on hand with oxygen tanks.
Overall, some of this setup was far from ideal. But it’s hard to argue with the results Scott achieved.
Multiple practical effects were used to display some of the more gruesome parts of the movie. Aliens, androids, and everything in between. No CGI, just ingenious use of everyday products.
One such instance was during the scene where Kane is inspecting the alien egg after first encountering it. An egg made of fiberglass was used so that actor John Hurt could shine his light on it and see movement inside. The movement itself was provided by Ridley Scott, who was fluttering his hands inside the egg while wearing rubber gloves. A different egg was used for the scene when it first opens, with the top of the egg being hydraulic and the innards consisting of such delights as tripe and a cow’s stomach.
The Facehugger was made using sheep’s intestines and was shot out of the egg using high-pressure air hoses. Later on in the movie when the dead Facehugger is being examined, Scott used pieces of fish and shellfish to create its viscera. One of the more memorable and downright stomach churning scenes involves the android Ash. Milk, caviar, pasta, fiber optics, and even urinary catheters were all combined to form the android’s innards.
For the Xenomorph itself, the creature’s body was sculpted using plasticine, incorporating things such as vertebrae from snakes and cooling tubes from a Rolls-Royce. The drool that frequently oozes from the mouth of the Xenomorph was made up of copious amounts of KY Jelly. The alien’s head had around 900 moving parts and points of articulation, with a real human skull even used in its makeup.
In a time where the vast majority of monsters and scares are generated using a computer, it’s no wonder we’re still in awe of the wildly creative effects used over 40 years ago.
The Xenomorph, Facehugger, chest-bursting scene, and many other elements are considered iconic moments in cinematic history. The success of Alien led 20th Century Fox to finance three direct sequels and in total there are 8 movies in the Alien universe. Add to this numerous novels, comic books, video games, and toys and it’s clear to see the effect Alien had on science fiction, horror, and popular culture in general.
Have you seen Alien? What did you think of the film? Got a fun fact or piece of trivia on the making of the film? Share it in the comments below!